HC Deb 25 May 2004 vol 421 cc379-86WH

11 am

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)

I have called this debate because of my constituents' increasing concerns about the commercialisation of Hyde park. In recent years, Hyde park has been host not only to millions of resident Londoners, commuters and tourists relishing the tranquillity of one of London's world attractions, but to noisy rock concerts and large-scale, commercially sponsored events, such as the Red Bull Flugtag and the Star Trek show. Such activities have led to destruction of the fabric of the park, from which it will take many years to recover.

Not only are even more such events planned for this summer, but only last week the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, proudly boasted that he intended to bring the royal parks under his control in the years ahead, presumably in order to turn them into entertainment playgrounds for Londoners and tourists. In the programme for Hyde park over the next few months, there are three rock concerts, the annual party in the park for the Prince's Trust and a special event in July for Simon and Garfunkel. Not only am I a keen rock and pop music fan, but Simon and Garfunkel are among my favourites. I will have to avoid going or being invited to that concert, although I suspect that I shall be able to hear one or two of their songs, given the amplification and the fact that I live quite nearby. It is also increasingly traditional to hold the proms in the park in September.

Although those commercial activities raise significant sums— £1.5 million last year—that does not fully compensate for the damage and disruption to Hyde park. I look forward to what the Minister says about that. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport grant for the royal parks as a whole was frozen in the three-year period from 2002 to 2005. The grant will presumably be subject to similar if not tighter pressures in the next public sector expenditure round. Although Hyde park bears the brunt of many money-spinning events, relatively little of the money comes back to help maintain the park, being instead spent on other royal parks under the Department's auspices.

London's eight royal parks rank among the UK's greatest outdoor attractions. Free and open to everyone, they are a special cultural and recreational resource, as I am sure everyone in the Chamber would agree. They face a miserable future, whether they operate as an Executive agency under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, as they do now, or fall under an increasingly power-crazed mayor, excited by the prospect of one rock band after another and their multitude of fans appearing in Hyde park. During the Iraq war, we also saw weekly demonstrations in central London, a number of which decanted into the Hyde park area. There is also the spectre of the park being used as the starting point or decanting point for the Notting Hill carnival, on which I shall comment later. Are there no traditions in this city or country of ours that the Government do not wish to trash?

I have files of correspondence from local residents who have watched the commercialisation of Hyde park with utter dismay. After last year's Bon Jovi concert, my postbag was full of letters from local residents who could not believe how loud the noise was. That applied not only to roads in the immediate vicinity, but to roads in Marylebone and Mayfair. Nor am I talking about one afternoon or evening of mayhem. The erecting and dismantling of a concert site means literally a week of noise and upset to the park's tranquillity, including juggernauts moving along roads that were not built for such heavy vehicles. Last year's Flugtag was the most destructive event the park has ever witnessed. Trees were badly and permanently damaged, and there was a lot of graffiti in the area. Many who love the park have observed that the parade ground has been ruined.

This year, on 18, 19 and 20 June—a Friday, Saturday and Sunday—more than 80,000 paying people will come each day to watch the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. As one of the world's biggest rock bands, they will, I fear, attract huge numbers of additional people, who will congregate in the area, causing great disturbance. I invite everybody here to go to the park on the Sunday evening of 20 June, and perhaps again on the Monday morning, to see the crowds and the mayhem and to witness the mess left behind.

I am a great fan of popular music, and I recognise the attraction of such events. However, Hyde park is a special place. The frequency of such events means that it is being damaged beyond repair. Everybody would agree that it should be a people's park, but let us remember the countless people who wish to use this priceless London amenity as an oasis of calm in the midst of the hustle and bustle of city life. Such people tend not to be very vocal, but the popularity of Hyde park, rain or shine, is a testament to their passion for the place. For heaven's sake, let there be some balance between the desire to party, and, as we have discussed, to raise funds, and the need to relax and recharge one's batteries.

London is unlike many cities in the world in having such a central park. Access to Hyde park, St. James's park and Green park is among the charms of living in the city. I know that many people in the UK look askance at the busy life that we lead in cities. They would be amazed by the tranquillity that we enjoy and the way in which, particularly in the summer, the park is used by young and old for rest and relaxation. While I do not say that we should not have any large-scale events, increasing commercialisation will subtly but, I fear, irreparably change the manner in which the park is used as an all-round asset.

I am in regular touch with Kenneth Stern, chairman of the Friends of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, with the dedicated officers of a multitude of local residents associations, such as Sir Anthony and Jennifer Cleaver, who live south of the park in Belgravia, and with many residents who live close to the park. They are entirely realistic. They are concerned about the increasing commercialisation, but they would not turn the clock back. With the party in the park, sponsored by Capital radio, the proms and other events, London's parks are a centre of attraction for the nation, and it is right that certain events should take place in the vicinity. My grave concern, as the Minister will know from my correspondence with her Department in the three years since I have been the local Member of Parliament, is that the views of residents associations and individual residents are all too often ridden over roughshod. On occasion, decisions are made without reference to such interested parties.

It is important to my constituency that it has vocal and articulate amenity organisations with a vocal strength that I sometimes encounter as the constituency MP. Their views are important. They should be heard and, to an extent, they should hold sway. In so far as there is to be a restructuring of Hyde park, I sincerely hope that the Minister will give some thought to reserving places for the officers of local residents groups and amenity societies so that their voices can be heard. Many who love Hyde park fear that there is an undeclared agenda to transform part of it into a permanent entertainments area. The Mayor's words of last week have confirmed those worst fears.

I want to add a little bit of context. It makes sense to look across the water to New York, a city of similar size, aspirations and importance in world affairs. Last year, the president of New York's Central park conservancy said that no more large-scale outside events were to be allowed in Central park because of the damage caused in the past. What is true for New York should be no less true for London. The cost of policing large-scale rock concerts, for example, and the expense of clearing rubbish, fall as ever on Westminster's council tax payers, and are a greater insult given that they have to suffer disturbance for many days. As yet, thankfully, no one has been seriously injured at any of the events. However, with the Mayor's proposal for the Notting Hill carnival to start in Hyde park, I fear that there will be distressing and distressful news one weekend night over an August bank holiday in the future.

Last year, I carried out quite an extensive survey among the 4,000 of my constituents who live nearest to Hyde park and its environs. One question that I asked was how they felt about Hyde park featuring in the route for the Notting Hill carnival. Some 80 per cent. of the respondents were totally against it, and only one fifth felt positive about the idea. The idea of the Notting Hill carnival, with its massive street march beforehand, struck fear into the hearts of most of the respondents. That included many who have first-hand experience of the carnival, either at a previous address or as interested nearby residents.

Discussions with some of the organisers of the carnival and some of my constituents who live on the current carnival route have shown that there is a strong belief that redirecting the procession to include Hyde park should not happen, because it goes against the whole tradition of the carnival and because such a change would undermine its relevance. The carnival would risk becoming another central London event, rather than one focused on the Notting Hill area. Obviously, I do not need to rehearse the arguments about the great history and tradition of the event and why it was located there after the 1958 race riots in that part of London.

The Mayor seeks to go ahead with the idea against almost everybody's wishes. It is almost as though the Government and the Mayor want Hyde park to be the central focus of all large-scale outdoor London events. I would be interested to hear the Minister's vision for the future, not just for Hyde park but for all the royal parks.

In short, commercialising Hyde park is a short road to destroying one of London's most beautiful jewels. It is globally recognised as a place of great beauty in the middle of a great world city. If we parliamentarians cannot play our role in halting that destructive force, I wonder whether we can look forward to a day under this Government and Mayor when College green and Parliament square will be home to revenue-earning car boot sales and not much else.

11.12 am
The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris)

I recognise the obvious and keen interest with which the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) has chosen Hyde park as the subject of the debate, and I understand its central importance to his constituents. As well as looking at what it contributes to the life of London and the nation, he has a particular responsibility to look after the near neighbours of the park. He has a special role that no other Member has, and I acknowledge that at the start.

In summary, this is about getting the balance right. I welcome the comments that the hon. Gentleman made about not wanting to turn the clock back or to deny people from areas other than those immediately surrounding the park the pleasure and joy that it can bring. I would not like to reach a position in which one could not find solace, solitude and quietness in the park without being bothered by loud noise or lots of people. We will do what we can over the next few years to get the balance correct.

The Royal Parks Agency's vision perhaps sums up the combination better than I have. It talks about trying "to achieve the perfect balance, where all understand and value the Parks, where everyone finds something in the Parks for them, and where no one's enjoyment of the Parks is at the unacceptable expense of others, now or in the future". It is important to make that statement. I do not think that that is a difficult vision statement to sign up to for people on either side of the discussion—I will not call it an argument—about Hyde park. The key question is how we make such an approach a reality and balance the interests of one side with those of the other.

It is important that there are commercial events in Hyde park. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman wants to go back to a time when there were no such events. When one looks back through the history of the nation, one sees that the large parks and main outdoor areas in London have always been centres where we have celebrated our traditions, as we did the jubilee; where we have expressed protest, as with the "Stop the War" marches; and where there have been pop concerts. He referred to the concerts that had been planned; I might well sign up for the Simon and Garfunkel one. The practice is not something started in recent years—the Rolling Stones played there in 1969.

In Hyde park, we have somewhere that some people see as solitude and solace. For others who live nearby, it is neighbouring land, and it has a place for the nation as a centre for traditional gatherings and the expression of national protest, as well as for celebrations in the form of pop concerts. I do not want that to change. The balance is about right. One of the unifying characteristics of the nation is that we have places where we feel comfortable holding such events. However, I readily accept that there is an obligation on those with responsibilities for the park to ensure that such events happen in a way that does not make life impossible for the people who live nearby.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the royal parks are funded predominantly by the taxpayer with an annual grant of £24.2 million. That is the right thing to do, but the sum involved is sizeable. Inevitably, Government finances must be raised and spent carefully. It is correct for the royal parks to augment that funding from other sources. The subject of the debate is commercial activities in Hyde park, but we have talked mainly about the big events, which were the focus of his comments. Nevertheless, catering, boating and deckchair hire are all commercial operations in Hyde park. Over the years, other, bigger events have been added to those activities.

I should think that we would want to welcome as many people as possible from this country and abroad to see the educational, cultural and recreational benefits of the park. I have no doubt that if it were not for those commercial activities, some people would not think to go there. If they visit the park for commercial events they may return for other events, perhaps including some of the quieter, free events.

As the hon. Gentleman said, money is indeed raised by the park's activities. Last year, £1.2 million was raised, and I believe that this year's target for income through commercial events is £1.6 million. Of course, there is a downside, as is inevitable in any place where once a week or once a month, lots of people with lots of equipment are imported to do things that do not happen for the rest of the time.

The hon. Gentleman summed up the matter well. Wear and tear to the parks and then fabric is a sensitive issue to which professional planners and managers should have regard.

Mr. Field

I have two concerns that I want to raise on behalf of my constituents. Clearly, there should be professional managers. Furthermore, the issue that I have raised is of grave concern to residents and people who cherish the amenity in question. Will their voice be heard in the strategic and day-to-day decision making about whether to prioritise work on wear and tear or work on other, larger-scale developments?

Estelle Morris

Perhaps I should deal with that point now; I was going to deal with the consultation later. I think that the hon. Gentleman would admit that his constituents are consulted, and I admit that we need to get better at carrying out such consultation. It is easy to say that we should consult people, but it is sometimes difficult to get the balance right. It is crucial that the people whose everyday lives and environment are most affected by events in the park should be consulted in a way that leaves them feeling that the consultation was meaningful and that they were listened to.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge—I accept that he has not made such a suggestion—that we could never get to a point at which residents had an effective veto on what went on in the park. I took it from what he said that people still feel to an extent that they have not been fully consulted, and I shall refer that issue back to my right hon. Friend Lord McIntosh, the Minister for Media and Heritage, who has the primary ministerial responsibilities in this regard. I know that Lord McIntosh has regular meetings with the Hyde park and other royal parks friends associations, which is why he will be particularly keen to read today's debate. The chief executive also has regular meetings.

Mr. Field

For obvious reasons, Lord McIntosh is not in a position to take part in this debate, but I wish to put it on record that I hear positive words from many of those to whom I speak. He has a true commitment and he spends a significant amount of time and effort trying to understand our concerns. I make no criticism whatever of particular Ministers; rather, I question the strategy about where the park should be in the general scheme of culture and recreation in central London in the next 20 or 30 years. I hope that the Minister may be able to elucidate on that point.

Estelle Morris

I am grateful for those comments. I shall summarise by saying that the consultation is not perfect. When I was preparing for today's debate, the Royal Parks Agency told me that it is working on its consultation, and that the process is better than it used to be. However, the agency knows that it must continually keep it eyes and ears open in order to make improvements and to help make local residents feel more involved. I wonder whether the agency was trying to make that happen in its recent consultation on the events strategy, which leads me to the next subject.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the royal parks have been consulting on the draft events strategy for the past few months. That is important, because it is time that we had such a strategy. Over the past few years, bits of change have been building up year by year—just one more each year—until, as he said, we run the danger of seeing the late spring, summer and early autumn entirely taken up with events. We may not want such an environment for the park. That is why I put a lot of store by the events strategy. Consultation has taken place, and more than 50 organisations have expressed views.

I want briefly to record the aims of the strategy. It should ensure the effective management of events; make the parks accessible for major cultural and sporting events that are important to the profile of London as a world cultural capital; make the parks accessible to people wishing to hold community events; develop a programme of low-impact events that increase appreciation of the parks' natural environment and history; and, lastly, allow a programme of commercial events to enable the parks to maintain current levels of income from events in 2005–06. We have received comments on the strategy. Lord McIntosh will reflect on them, and he hopes to respond before the summer recess. I hope that the events strategy will be the blueprint for the future.

Crucial to the strategy is how it is put into action. It is no good having a strategy unless we have a clear way of turning the words into action. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents see in the strategy a determination to plan events so that people know what is coming up. I think that, most of all, people would welcome a reduced dependence on Hyde park. Despite the fact that the Royal Parks Agency is responsible for eight or nine open spaces, there has been a predominance of events in Hyde park. The other parks in the royal estate have seen few such events. The strategy has the stated aim of reducing the number of events in Hyde park, which will inevitably increase the number of events in the other parks.

New commercial events on a small scale have taken place in other parks. A good example was the Frieze art fair, which was held last year for the first time in Regent's park and is coming back this year. The agency plans to reduce over time the number of large-scale events in Hyde park and to reduce the royal parks' dependency on income from events in Hyde park alone. I hope that that offers some comfort to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents, and that it gives them a peg for further consultation and discussions with the Royal Parks Agency and Lord McIntosh.

Mr. Field

That good news will obviously be welcomed by many of the constituents who have written to me on the matter, but I wonder whether the Minister might say something in the remaining minutes about the future of the Royal Parks Agency. As I said, there is speculation in theEvening Standard that the Mayor of London—currently Ken Livingstone, but it may be someone else after 10 June—will want some control over the agency. Is any change envisaged in the status of the royal parks and in how they are managed in the years ahead?

Estelle Morris

We have no plans for that. The Mayor can voice his aspirations, but there have been no discussions between the Department and the Mayor about a change in status. The DCMS has a very good working relationship with the Royal Parks Agency, and we have no plans to change that in the foreseeable future. I, too, read theEvening Standard. We in politics are led to believe that it reflects everyone's aspirations, but such things are not always achieved. We therefore look to the future.

As well as ensuring that there are fewer events in Hyde park, and fewer big events in particular, we must find other ways of raising income. The hon. Gentleman may have had time to visit the Inn the Park restaurant in St. James's park, which is also situated in his constituency. In the four weeks in which the restaurant has been open, it has had excellent write-ups. It is in a beautiful building that is built to the highest standards and completely fits in with the environment of St. James's park. The Royal Parks Agency is doing more such things to raise income, and we should welcome the investment that it is making to ensure that it can rely on more than the big event to generate income.

The creation of the new Royal Parks Foundation, an independent charity that was established only recently under the chairmanship of Peter Ellwood to raise funds for large projects, is also important. It is very difficult to raise money for the bread-and-butter maintenance of the parks and much easier to gain sponsorship or to raise money for other activities. I very much hope that, with the money given by the DCMS, the foundation will be able to carry out the bread-and-butter repair and maintenance of the parks.

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's point about the Bon Jovi concert. Indeed, perhaps I should not say this, but he could have mentioned other events that had gone wrong in Hyde park. I have been told that the sound at the concert far exceeded the permitted level. I am not sure whether he knows this, but a condition of holding such events in Hyde park this year is that the groups use a public address system provided by the Royal Parks Agency, which will ensure that the sound is kept within permitted levels. I understand that Bon Jovi had its own PA system and did not respond to requests made during the event to reduce the noise. I cannot promise that what happened will never be repeated, but the key point to note is that there was a problem with an unacceptable noise level and that the Royal Parks Agency responded by introducing a new requirement to use its PA system so that it can control it.

I also acknowledge that the amount of mess that is left after such events is deplorable, but I should point out that a licence fee is paid for events staged in Hyde park. The fee can be up to £150,000, depending on the scale of the event. That is meant to compensate the borough and the Royal Parks Agency for the cost of clearing up the mess the next day.

The park is the jewel in the crown, and an important part, not only of the capital, but of national life. In or out of London, there is no one who does not know Hyde park. It is one of the factors that unify this country. It is changing, but it must raise some of its own income. It has managed its events haphazardly in the past few years, but some of those events, such as the jubilee celebrations, have been a great success and have become part of our national folklore. Equally, however, some of the events have gone into local folklore as nights that local residents would not want to live through again.

The way forward is to work together with proper consultation. I very much hope that the events strategy will become a reality and that it will be endorsed by September. I hope that it will form an agenda for the Royal Parks Agency and my right hon. Friend Lord McIntosh, so that, along with local representatives and residents, they can find a way forward. If it does so, I very much hope that Hyde park will continue to be a valuable asset as well as a beautiful neighbour to the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.